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Chrysalis, Listening

Ever since I picked up To Pimp a Butterfly three days ago, I can’t stop thinking about anything else. I’ve listened to it at least ten times and it holds up to all of the praise and talk it’s generated so far. It’s been hailed as  for-real black music, the blackness of which is beautifully, achingly overwhelming according to Jezebel’s Clover Hope. Some compare it to a novel in scope and complexity, and the music weaves every African-American musical tradition (blues, jazz, soul, funk, poetry, hip-hop) into a song cycle that considers what it means to be black, to be the voice of a community, to be a star, and to be a soul struggling for authenticity and transcendence.

The word swirl has been used to describe the album; pastiche or collage would work just as well, but these all subsume the record’s wholeness, a quality that would take 1,000 more words for me to explain. Jay Caspian Kang (“Notes on the Hip-Hop Messiah“) writes about the periodic anointing of a messianic savior by critics and hip-hoppers, the messiah rising up just when the genre seems to be flagging. The mortician ties on the toe-tag, the corpse is ready to go into the freezer.

“But wait! He’s still alive!”

The emcee sits up, alert, and throws off the shroud before leaping down and grabbing the mic for one last go-round. You check his pulse, this supernatural rhyming deadman who is getting ready to speak out about what it means to be young and black in America, and you realize that he took pieces from all over the morgue while you weren’t looking: a lung from the old saxophone player two drawers over, a foot from the drummer in the drawer nearest the floor, and a heart from the entire Parliament crew who’ve been laying in there for what seems like years now. Suddenly you hear the warbly synth-siren of G-funk and in a few minutes the bouncy bass becomes too much and you can’t help but alternate between dancing and thinking for the rest of the night.

The album wanders and veers, all voices inside your head and spoken aloud to the gathered crowd. It warrants intense scrutiny of every pronoun and phrase. And when was the last time Ralph Ellison was referenced outside of your English class? Yet investigate the yams in “King Kunta” and consider that, beyond the subliminal connection established by David Dark in his Pitchfork essay, the basic message in the album is about self-acceptance being crucial to becoming truly free. Hold a mirror up.

At first, the Invisible Man is ashamed, refusing to eat porkchops because they’ll reveal his southernness, his blackness. Much later he meets a yam seller on the street and recognizes the truth: “I yam what I yam,” he says, and from there he transforms into someone beautiful, a man capable of exposing and dismantling the disturbing contradictions he sees.

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